Oct. 4, 2015
Yes, Clemson’s Memorial Stadium was wet and wild, all jacked up and, at least for Tiger fans, truly electric at kickoff (as expected).
Yes, the rain poured down virtually all night long (as expected).
Yes, the Tigers rode a wave of emotion early from Notre Dame’s first visit to Clemson in 38 years (not unexpected).
Yes, the mostly standing Clemson fans made all sorts of noise when the Irish had the football and played at least some role in a handful of Notre Dame false starts and delay penalties (probably not unexpected).
Yes, Notre Dame did itself no favors by digging holes for itself right off the bat in each half (definitely unexpected).
And, yes, Irish head coach Brian Kelly made it clear his team and program are past coming close, past pats on the back for trying hard, past moral victories.
That’s what made Notre Dame’s first loss of the year, a 24-22 decision that came down to a missed Irish two-point conversion attempt with seven seconds on the clock, tough to stomach for anyone wearing blue and gold.
When they watch the video, Kelly’s crew members will rue the way they started—allowing Tiger quarterback Deshaun Watson to send triple receivers to the right side and then head back left out of an empty backfield right down the Irish sideline for a career-best 38-yard gain on the very first play from scrimmage. That set the tone for the first half of an opening period in which virtually nothing went Notre Dame’s way.
One hundred sixty-one seconds into the contest and the Irish trailed 7-0. The Tigers clearly keyed on Prosise early (his first quarter netted minus-five yards on six rushing carries and at halftime he had 10 attempts for four yards), and Clemson lineman Shaq Lawson had three and a half tackles for loss in the opening period alone.
Notre Dame went three and out on its first possession and punter Tyler Newsome, off a record performance only a week ago, could manage only a 15-yard effort. Given the short field, Dabo Swinney’s unit went the 40 required yards. In less than seven minutes, the Irish were in a 14-0 hole. Seriously dialed in on defense just two weeks ago against Georgia Tech, Notre Dame this time found a slippery opponent—and not just because of the persistent rain.
From there, the Irish at least held their own the rest of the opening half. Rookie Justin Yoon connected for a season-best 46-yard field goal, and the Irish defense cobbled things together well enough to limit Clemson to 32 second-period yards and force four straight punts to end the half. Four of Clemson’s final five first-half possessions combined to total 10 plays for 15 yards (including a kneel-down on the last play). But Notre Dame couldn’t find the keys to the car on offense to mount any first-half drive longer than 41 yards.
Down 11 at the break, Kelly’s group needed only a single score to inject itself back into the conversation. But, the second-half start proved at least as perplexing as the first. This time freshman C.J. Sanders fumbled away the second-half kickoff, and another short field for Clemson made it 21-3 just 46 seconds into the third period. On the first play of the next Notre Dame possession, Prosise lost the handle on the football (the only lost fumble by an Irish running back this season)—though this time the defense held its ground.
When Clemson took over with 8:56 left in the third period, the Irish amazingly held a186-182 advantage in total offense, but three periods on the road without a touchdown would take a toll. It took 47 seconds into the final quarter before DeShone Kizer zeroed in on Prosise for a 56-yard scoring play.
Clemson then drove 50 yards for a field goal that ultimately became the game-winning points. After that the Irish began gobbling up yards in droves.
Down 24-9 with 11 minutes remaining, Kizer found South Carolinian Chris Brown for 33 yards and two plays later ran it in from the three. The Irish defense forced a three and out, only to see Kizer throw a pick on first down from his own 18. Clemson missed a field goal, and Kizer hit Brown again for 34 and Fuller for 23—but another completion to Brown ended in a lost fumble at the Clemson four with 2:20 left.
Again the Irish defense held up and the Irish took over at the Clemson 32 with 1:04 to go. Kizer produced first downs on a 20-yard throw to Amir Carlisle and a 16-yarder to Prosise—and then he lofted one to Torii Hunter Jr. in the corner of the end zone with seven ticks left. The Kizer keeper right--on the conversion attempt that might have sent the game into overtime—came up short.
Ultimately the Irish would turn the ball over four times in the second half alone—and that’s after three combined turnovers over the first four victories of 2015.
There was no sound in the Notre Dame locker room as the drenched Irish players contemplated whether they deserved a better ending. Kizer made a bunch of winning plays down the stretch (he threw for 202 yards in the fourth period), but he couldn’t shake the vacant look in his eyes left by the frustrating miss on the two-point conversion try.
Kelly made sure his team understood that four turnovers on the road against a top 15 opponent weren’t likely to qualify for anything positive. It simply wasn’t the smart, winning football the Irish had been used to playing the first month of 2015.
“You should be unhappy you let this slip through your hands. Just how badly do you want to be great?” Kelly said. “I’m disappointed for you that you couldn’t seize this opportunity. You can’t win games if you don’t start fast.”
Coach Mike Sanford broke things down with a wistful, standing Kizer and a seated Malik Zaire—and gave them both a hug when they finished.
Across a wet tunnel and up two flights of purple-carpeted stairs, Kelly told the media much the same thing he told his team:
“There are no moral victories on the road for us. We played well enough defensively after the first period.
“You can’t beat Clemson turning the ball over four times and not starting better on defense.
“They brought pressure, but we sorted some things out. But you’ve got to take care of the football.”
It was 12:15 p.m. and Kizer stood in the middle of the visiting team’s tunnel, stoically answering media questions in hushed tones.
The wind swept in from the field and the rain continued to fall.
The Irish had limited Watson to 45 passing yards during the game’s final 45 minutes. They finished the contest with edges of 141 in total yards and 224 in passing yards. Prosise had only 50 net rushing yards but 100 receiving yards. Max Redfield had 14 tackles (11 solo), Jaylon Smith nine and Isaac Rochell seven. Clemson had only 181 combined yards over the last three periods.
After struggling to mount 212 net yards over the first three periods combined, the fourth period by itself saw Notre Dame run 19 plays and accumulate 225 yards (11.8 yards per play). Kizer found pay dirt on nine of his 12 throws in the last 15 minutes (all that against the third-ranked pass defense in the country).
None of that could change the final score at 3 a.m. as the night skies continued to bucket rain while the Irish trudged up the stairs to their charter flight home.
There was no victory, moral or otherwise, this time around. The Clemson fans who stormed the field in celebration knew otherwise.
-- by John Heisler, senior associate athletics director